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A few months ago, the University of Tennessee at Martin unveiled a redesigned website. The site in an earlier form was brought up during a Student Government Association meeting in late November, which is how I first found out about it. Yes, I still read The Pacer.

We will pretend for a minute that I have nothing to do with web design or development. It is not that far of a stretch, as I rarely have to open Photoshop or a text editor as part of my job. I do work with a group that is passionate about interactive marketing, but this has little nothing to do with that fact alone. What I want to talk about are some basic things that should have come up early and often during the planning and execution of the website.

What are the goals of the university, and how can site support those goals?

Academic institutions have two goals: the education and enrichment of its students, and a steady supply of those students to educate. If either of those falter, success is all but impossible. As we are not quite to a point where all education occurs on the web, let's put "recruit quality students" at the top of the list. Some other goals that a four-year academic institution will have:

  1. Recruit quality students by making the case for attending this institution over another
  2. Support existing students by providing resources to further their education
  3. Recruit quality faculty and staff by making the case for working for institution over another
  4. Support existing faculty by empowering them to to do their jobs better
  5. Solicit financial gifts and endowments by making the case that it is a sound investment

This list could go on and on, but the important thing to recognize is that there is a priority, and that the tactics and primary call to action should support those main initiatives.

Who is this site for, and how will they use it?

Marketing 101 will tell you to your know your customers inside and out. To begin, you have to make some assumptions (and, as one staff member points out, asking people to contribute their thoughts). So let's dive in and think a bit about who our stakeholders are. As with the goals, we have a primary stakeholder in mind.

  1. Prospective Student: Cares about the reputation of the school, cost, cultural fit and areas of study. Concerned about making the right decision when selecting a school. Makes decisions based on emotion, justifies that decision rationally.
  2. Parent of Prospective Student: Cares about the success of their child and that he or she receives a college degree. Concerned about the cost of higher education and the how far his or her son or daughter will be away from home as well as their safety.
  3. Current Student: Cares about easy access to the resources of the institution without having to dig for it. Concerned about maintaining academic standing and opportunities for campus involvement.
  4. Prospective Faculty: Cares about the work environment and surrounding community. Concerned about cost of living and access to services.
  5. Existing Faculty: Cares about providing a quality educational setting for students. Concerned about decreasing higher education funding and increasing enrollment.
  6. Donor: Cares about seeing the results of their contributions. Concerned about tax implications and ensuring funds are used as directed.

We could continue not only adding to this list, but creating a full persona for each of these stakeholder groups. The prospective student (let's call him Johnny) is a high school junior researching his options for college. Johnny has done well in school and has earned the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship. Johnny drives a second-hand car, but knows he will be getting a new one as a graduation present. Johnny wants to schedule a campus visit for several schools that his interested in, and UT Martin is one of them. Johnny does not know much about UT Martin, but he does know that he wants to study political science. He spends a good bit of his time playing Call of Duty on his Plastation 3, but he also uses the Internet for his school work as well as researching where he may attend college. He searches for UT Martin on Google, and arrives to the home page.

It is all about conversions

There have been a number of great web developers and designers who build complex and elegant websites that are terrific failures. It does not matter what features the site has or how cool that flash movie looks as it does a 3D transformation into the university logo. You have less than 10 seconds to make an impression, so get to what is most important.

Earlier, we identified that our number one goal was the recruitment of quality students. If I only had one dream for the site, it would be this: every prospective student with high academic standards that visited the site submitted an application before they left. If 100 percent of the visitors did that, the site would be smashing success. That one thing that you need a stakeholder to do (complete a form, make a purchase, download a file) is your conversion. Your conversion rate is based on how many of your total visitors do that one action, typically expressed as a percentage. For some sites, a two-tenths of a percent conversion rate is phenomenal. A website can have dozens of conversion points for dozens of stakeholders, but it should always be pushing the one that is most beneficial to the organization.

So, why are you hating on the new UTM.edu site?

It is not because the site is not sexy or that it has rather clunky UI. Both of those things are true. It is because it lacks a clear focus on why someone would come to it in the first place. Take a look at the graphic to the right. It is a distilled version of the site, removing any color or other "design" element from it. As a visitor, where should my eyes go? If I flip back to the site, is that area of the page even relevant to my conversion?

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If you think it is that area at the top, you would be surprised to see that only one of the slides there invites a visitor to complete a college application. There is a good chance that Johnny will visit the site and spend a bit of time looking for the admissions link (one of 11 primary navigation links) or click directly to the "Apply Now" banner a few tiers down in that second column. That link doesn't take you to the admissions landing page, though. If Johnny instinctively thinks that he needs to click the Apply button to get started on the financial aid process or to find out how much it costs to apply, there will not be any help on the resulting page. If he did click on the "Admissions" link at the top, he is taken to another page to dive deeper into the process and eventually lands on a page with a PDF form. Buried in the text, a link to the online form.

This tactic relies a lot on the visitor to know exactly what he needs to do and what information he should seek out. If our conversion is to have them complete the form (and to have done so confidently), the tactics should be more guided. Walking a visitor through the conversion process consistently throughout the site is the best way to ensure you do not lose anyone in the process. This is where UT Martin has failed on the User Experience side of the equation.

Let's step back to the User Interface a bit. Glance again at the wireframe above, and then at these images below.

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I picked a handful of other college websites and gave them the same treatment. What are some things that jump out at you? Can you guess where the main call to action items are located? While each of these sites also have missed opportunities, it is easy to see that they were much more purposeful in how they designed the site to appeal to visitors with a short attention span.

Maybe I am being too tough on UT Martin. Freshman enrollment increases every year regardless of what the website looks like. But I have to believe that there is plenty of room for improvement in the strategy and execution of this site.